Costigan / Seriously, do we need a civic square?

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Civic Square… a very boring space surrounded by a mix of not-so-good architecture. Photo by Paul Costigan

SEVERAL decades ago I commented that the then government had spent a million dollars to turn Civic Square from a grey Stalinist square to another grey Stalinist square.

Paul Costigan.

Not much was achieved. In the decades that followed there has been more expenditures to deliver today a very boring space surrounded by a mix of not-so-good architecture.

Last month the City Urban Authority announced that a design team is to develop a plan for the future of Civic Square and the surrounding cultural precinct. According to the authority’s website, “the plan will focus on improving connectivity and increasing the overall cultural offering for the precinct, including public realm improvements, early interventions, pop-up opportunities and flexible and adaptable spaces that can serve a wide variety of community needs throughout the year.”

Exciting stuff with all sorts of vibrancy promised. Can’t wait!

I suggest that the Canberra Museum and Gallery should be elsewhere in a specially built building, with more useable spaces and much easier access by locals and tourists. But seriously, do we really need a civic square? This need to revamp Civic Square may be important to politicians but to most what happens on this site would be irrelevant. Melbourne spent decades debating the future of its City Square on Swanston Street. Last time I saw the site it had been demolished to make way for a railway station.

This push for a revamp is a distraction from the more pressing urban issues around Civic and ignores the cultural needs of the rest of the city.

While the former National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) did well in allowing for community sites (now being squandered by this government), it did not deliver arts facilities in the town centres. Most arts facilities have been the result of time-consuming advocacy – not because ACT governments had a plan to deliver arts complexes to established and new major centres. Governments continue to lack the awareness of the community benefits that flow from having access to local arts activities offered through a local arts complex. We rarely see ACT arts ministers who passionately appreciate the arts. I think Bill Wood (MLA from 1989-2004) may have been the last.

Central Belconnen has recently moved to having a reasonable arts centre with the upgrades to the Belconnen Arts Centre (big tick to whoever won that). Tuggeranong has its arts centre but it is small given the population of Tuggeranong. By now Gungahlin, West Belconnen, Weston, Woden, South Canberra and Dickson should all have been resourced with arts centres.

For comparison, in 2000 the Sutherland Shire in the south of Sydney opened Hazelhurst, a fabulous arts centre. Just after it opened, I asked the then director if there had been a champion on the local council. Yes, there was. A dedicated team researched the needs, toured other arts centre, worked out the best options, identified sources of funds and came up with this fantastic model. Hazelhurst is much loved and is always busy. For anyone who wants to know what should be repeated across Canberra at least six times, visit Hazelhurst and tour the facilities. You will be jealous.

Instead of all the attention and money constantly being focused on Civic Square and inner-city facilities, it is time to look to having a range of arts facilities throughout the city. This is exactly what Woden has been seeking for over a decade now – and still there are no such facilities being planned (do we still do planning?).

We need a champion. We need to elect politicians who get the arts, know what benefits of participating in the arts do for locals and are prepared to not take no for an answer. Too optimistic? In the interim wouldn’t it be wonderful to see some planning for suburban art complexes. Why not start with one in Woden – and maybe another on the Dickson Parklands.

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